Estonian Americans

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by Mark A. Granquist


Located on the east coast of the Baltic Sea, the Republic of Estonia is the northernmost of the three Baltic Republics. The country measures 17,413 square miles (45,100 sq. km.), including some 1,500 islands in the Baltic Sea. The population is approximately 72 percent urban in character, and the capital city is Tallinn. Estonia is bordered on the north by the Gulf of Finland, on the east by Lake Peipus and Russia, on the south by Latvia, and on the west by the Baltic Sea.

The 1992 census estimated the population of Estonia at 1,607,000. Of these inhabitants 65 percent are Estonian, while 30 percent are Russian, and the rest are Ukrainian and Byelorussian. The ethnic Russian immigration intensified during the Soviet period (1940-1991) and is concentrated in the east, especially around Narva. Lutherans constitute the largest religious group, although there are other Protestant denominations (principally Baptist) and a significant number of Eastern Orthodox Christians. The official language is Estonian, with Russian also widely spoken. The Estonian flag consists of three evenly spaced horizontal bands-blue on the top, black in the middle, and white on the bottom.


The Estonians are a Baltic-Finnish group related to the Finno-Ugric peoples. Their first significant historical contact was with the Vikings, who in the ninth and tenth centuries conquered the Estonian homeland, bringing trade and cultural exchange. In the Middle Ages the Swedes, Danes, and Russians all attempted to conquer the land and to introduce Christianity, but it was not until the thirteenth century that the Germans prevailed and introduced Christianity by force. The Teutonic Order, a German order of crusading knights and priests, won control of Estonia by 1346, subjugating the native population and establishing a tradition of German rule that would extend into the twentieth century. As the power of the Teutonic Knights began to wane in the fifteenth century, Poland, Lithuania, and Russia all laid claim to Estonian territory, but it was Sweden who won control after the dissolution of the Teutonic Order in 1561. With Russia's defeat of Sweden in the Great Northern War, Estonia was transferred to Russian rule in 1721. Although some Estonians looked favorably to Russian rule as a way to free their country from German and Swedish domination, Russian government proved to be a mixed blessing. During the eighteenth century rural Estonians lost many of their traditional liberties. Serfdom was finally eliminated by 1819, and other social reforms followed. Imperial attempts at the "Russification" of Estonian life in the late nineteenth century broke the grip of the Baltic-Germans over the country, but these efforts came into conflict with an ascendant wave of Estonian nationalism.

The January 1905 Revolution in Russia spread to Estonia, with Estonian leaders demanding national autonomy. When the revolution was crushed by imperial forces, many Estonian revolutionary leaders fled abroad. With the collapse of imperial government in 1917, Estonia won first autonomy and then independence. This was opposed by the Communists, who backed down only with the advance of German troops into the Baltic States in 1918. From 1917 to 1920, with British and Finnish aid, Estonians fought for independence from Russia. By 1920 Estonian troops had forced all remaining Soviet troops out of Estonia, and the country was finally independent. Between the World Wars, the newly emerging state had to contend externally with continued pressure and intrigue from the Soviets and internally with economic and political instability. In 1940, with the secret compliance of the Germans, Soviet troops took over Estonia and incorporated it into the Soviet Union. From 1941 to 1944, Estonia was occupied by the Nazis, and when Soviet troops reentered Estonia in 1944, large numbers of Estonians (perhaps ten percent of the total population) fled the country. Estonia continued as a Soviet Republic until 1991, undergoing another wave of Russification in the 1950s and 1960s. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, Estonia declared its independence in 1991, and a new Estonian government was elected in 1992.


During the period of Swedish rule over Estonia in the seventeenth century, a few Estonians assisted the Swedes in establishing the colony of New Sweden on the Delaware River. Estonian immigration to the United States was nevertheless quite limited until the late nineteenth century. The first Estonian immigrants were fortune hunters or seamen who jumped Russian sailing vessels. Immigration records do not identify them as Estonians, referring to them instead as "Russians," a practice that continued until 1922. In 1894, one group settled near Fort Pierre, South Dakota, while others settled in New York and San Francisco.

The first significant wave of immigration came after the failure in Estonia of the 1905 Revolution. This wave brought a strong Socialist contingent to the United States that led to the formation of many Estonian American Socialist and Communist organizations. Population estimates of the Estonian American community during this period vary widely and are difficult to reconcile. By 1930, official immigration and census records reveal that there were only about 3,550 Estonian Americans in the United States. Other sources, however, including government estimates, suggest that this number was much larger, recording 5,100 Estonian Americans in 1890, 44,100 in 1910, and 69,200 in 1920. The establishment of an independent Estonia in 1920, combined with the tightening of American immigration laws in the 1920s, dramatically slowed Estonian immigration to the United States. After World War II, there was a tremendous exodus of Estonians from Soviet rule; most Estonians made their way to Sweden or Germany, although about 15,000 of them came to the United States. Unlike the group that arrived in 1905, this group was strongly anti-Socialist and nationalistic; it spanned a larger exile community and was connected by a web of international organizations. The U.S. Census of 1990 lists 26,762 Americans claiming Estonian as a first or second ancestry.


Early settlements arose on both coasts, in New York City and around San Francisco and Astoria, Oregon. In the late nineteenth century, there were rural, agricultural colonies of Estonian Americans in Fort Pierre, South Dakota; Bloomville, Wisconsin; Dickenson, North Dakota; and Chester, Montana, among other places. But these rural Midwestern settlements did not represent the bulk of Estonian immigrants. Rather, the two major waves of Estonian immigration in the twentieth century were mainly urban in nature. Major Estonian American settlements were located in the northeastern United States (Boston, Connecticut, New York City, New Jersey, Baltimore, and Washington), in the Midwest (Detroit and Cleveland), and on the West Coast (San Francisco and Los Angeles). More than half of Estonian Americans lived in the Northeast, with 20 percent concentrated in California and 15 percent in the Midwest. There was limited reverse migration back to Estonia in the 1920s, but this never became a significant trend. During the period of German and Russian occupation from 1940 to 1991, there was virtually no reemigration.


Estonian immigrants have not stirred much reaction from the dominant culture in America, as the group is rather small in number. Because they share many characteristics with their white, middle-class urban neighbors, they quickly assimilate into their surroundings and have become part of their local communities. These immigrants tend to be literate, skilled, and hardworking and have made successful lives in the United States. One possible source of tension was the emergence of a radical socialist and communist movement among Estonians from 1905 to 1920. Instigated by refugees who took flight from Estonia during the 1905 Russian Revolution, this radicalizing movement captured and transformed many Estonian American institutions, causing great turmoil within the immigrant community. Coming at a time when Estonians were considered Russian in the popular mind, and when fear of communism was rampant, this did not go far to create a positive image of the Estonian immigrant. Nevertheless, the events of the World War II, the Russian invasion of Estonia, and the flood of refugees out of the country created a swell of popular recognition for all the Baltic countries, including Estonia.

Acculturation and Assimilation

Estonian immigrants in the United States have generally assimilated well into the mainstream of American society, especially after 1945. Before World War II, the Estonians did not push hard to become American citizens; in 1930 only 42 percent of immigrants had citizenship (a pace behind Finnish and other Baltic immigrants). In the late twentieth century, however, Estonian Americans have rapidly climbed the social and economic ladder, specializing in areas of technical expertise. A number of factors have contributed to a high degree of assimilation among Estonian Americans: the size of the community, its rapid educational and social success, and the wide geographical dispersion of the immigrants.

Estonian Americans have created a large network of social and cultural organizations, schools, churches, and clubs to keep alive the language and culture of their homeland. This network is coordinated by the Estonian American National Council, headquartered in New York City. A major goal of these institutions is to retain and transmit the Estonian heritage to succeeding generations. A network of 14 Estonian schools in the United States teaches Estonian language, history, and culture to the children of the community. Estonian American scouting is a national program with sponsored activities. Local Estonian American groups include women's and veterans' organizations and literary and cultural circles. Before 1992 and the establishment of the independent Republic of Estonia, many groups were dedicated to the opposition of communism and the eventual freedom of the Baltic states.

The tensions inherent in acculturation and assimilation are best displayed in the lives of the refugees who fled Estonia after the World War II. On the one hand, they were glad to be in the United States and emphasized success within the American culture. On the other hand, as with many political refugees from Soviet communism, they held a strong passion for the overthrow of communism in Estonia and maintained hope that they would someday return to their native land. This refugee status created internal turmoil for some Estonian Americans, as they tried to balance the demands of their homeland and heritage with feelings of patriotism for the United States and a desire to assimilate into American society. Today, much of the active Estonian American community is composed of these first- and second-generation immigrants.


Estonian Americans are closely affiliated with immigrants from other Baltic countries (Latvia, Lithuania, and Finland). Not only did these groups arrive in the United States at roughly the same time, they share a common history in Europe. Since the Soviet takeover of the Baltic Republics in 1940, Americans of Baltic descent have joined in common action toward securing independence for their ancestral homelands. A number of groups were formed around this issue, including the Joint Baltic American National Committee (1961) and the Baltic World Council (1972). There are also joint cultural and educational efforts and celebrations, and a Baltic Women's Council (1947).


Estonian cooking combines the culinary influences of Scandinavia, Germany, and Russia with native traditions. The raw ingredients come from the forests, farms, and coastal waters of Estonia: berries, pork, cabbage, sour cream, and seafood (salmon, herring, eel, sprat) are staples. From Scandinavia and Finland come the traditional foods of the smorgasbord; from Germany come sauerkraut and various cold potato salads. Russian influences also abound. Rossolye is a cold mixed salad of potatoes, vegetables, diced meat, and herring, with a sour cream-vinegar dressing. Mulgikapsad is a pork and sauerkraut dish that takes its name from an Estonian province. Other salads, common to the Baltic region, include a preserved mixed fruit salad and a sour cream-cucumber salad.


Estonian Americans do not wear a distinctive everyday garment that would set them apart as being Estonian. As with many other European groups, Estonians have colorful regional costumes that immigrants sometimes brought with them, but these are worn only on special occasions, such as ethnic celebrations or festivals.

Traditional costumes for women include a tunic shirt, a full colorful skirt, and an embroidered apron. The headdresses worn by women vary according to region and village. In southern Estonia, the traditional headdress for a married woman is a long, linen, embroidered kerchief worn around the head and down the back. In northern Estonia, small, intricately designed coifs (hats) adorn women's folk costumes. Heavy necklaces are also common. Men's costumes generally consist of wide-legged pants gathered at the knee and loose-fitting shirts. The principal headdress for men is a high, stiff felt hat or fur cap with earflaps, the latter of which is worn during the winter months. Both men's and women's traditional costumes include a decorative broach used to fasten shirts and blouses. During the winter, traditional Estonian costumes included high felt boots called valenka to protect them from the cold.


Along with the traditional Christian and American holidays, there are certain festival days that are of special significance to the Estonian American community. February 24 is celebrated as Estonian Independence Day, marking the formal declaration of Estonian independence in 1918. A two-day holiday in June combines two separate celebrations, St. John's Eve (Midsummer) on June 23, and Victory Day on June 24. Reaching far back into history, Midsummer is a common festival in the Scandinavian and Baltic countries. Victory Day commemorates the defeat of the Soviet Armies in the Estonian War of Independence (1918-1920). In their celebration of Christmas, Estonians extend the holiday a day or two after December 25; the first few days after Christmas are devoted to visiting friends and family.

A feature of resurgent Estonian nationalism during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has been national song festivals, celebrated for a period of days during the summer. Estonians in Europe and North America continue to celebrate these festivals, organizing mass gatherings to honor Estonia and to maintain national identity. In North America Estonians from Canada and the United States gathered in such celebrations from 1957 to 1968, twice in New York and twice in Canada. The Estonian World Festivals, a series of worldwide Estonian gatherings, began in 1972. The first such event was in Toronto, followed by Baltimore, Maryland, and Stockholm.


Estonian Americans have embraced medicine as it is practiced in the United States and have been eager to become medical practitioners. A 1975 survey by the Väliseestlasea kalendar (Almanac for the Estonian Abroad ) listed over 100 Estonian American doctors or dentists, of whom 25 percent were women.


The Estonian language is a branch of the Baltic-Finnish group of the Finno-Ugric family, related to Finnish. Most ethnic Estonians speak Estonian, but ethnic Russians and others in Estonia continue to speak Russian because Estonian is considered to be a difficult language to learn. Historically, there have been a number of dialects, but the one spoken around the capital of Tallinn has come to dominate literary expression, thus ruling the development of modern Estonian. Another form of Estonian is spoken by Estonian war refugees in Sweden and has absorbed some Swedish influences. The written language uses the Roman alphabet and consists of 14 consonants and nine vowels (a, ä, e, i, o, ö, õ, u, and ü). The consonants c, f, q, w, x, y, and z are generally used only in names and words of foreign origin. The language has a musical quality and employs a great number of diphthongs and other vowel combinations.

The Estonian American community has made strong attempts to maintain the language, with mixed success. A number of schools, publications, congregations, and learned societies within the community still use Estonian as a means of discourse. This is somewhat problematic within the larger community because new generations and the non-Estonian spouses of mixed marriages have a hard time understanding Estonian. Still, Estonian is taught at Indiana University, Kent State University, and Ohio State University, and a number of public libraries throughout the United States offer Estonian language collections, including the Boston Public Library, the New York Public Library, and the Cleveland Public Library.

"A fter I got my citizenship, I sponsored two Estonian immigrant families. And a few years ago, I married a man from one of those families. So I have a new life. I feel that I have been blessed, really. This country has given me many things: a home, friendship, a chance to live again."

Leida Sorro in 1951, cited in American Mosaic: The Immigrant Experience in the Words of Those Who Lived It, edited by Joan Morrison and Charlotte Fox Zabusky (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1980).


Common Estonian greetings and other expressions include: Tere hommikut (tere hommikoot)-"Good morning;" Tere õhtut (tere erhtut)-"Good evening;" Jumalaga (yoomahlahgah)-"Good-bye;" Kuidas käsi käib (kooydahs kasi kayb)-"How are you?;" Tänan hästi tanahn haysti)-"Fine, thanks;" Palun (pahloon)-"Please;" Tänan (tanahn)-"Thanks;" Vabandage (vahbahndahge)-"Excuse me;" Jah (yah)"Yes;" Ei (ey)-"No;" and Nägemieseni (nagesmiseni)"See you later."

Family and Community Dynamics

Before 1920 the Estonian American community tended to be dominated by young single men and women who came either to look for work or to escape the religious and political repression of tsarist Russia. Because the vast majority lived in cities on the East or West Coast, a stable immigrant community, with a predominance of families and other social and cultural institutions, was slow to develop. But the 1920s and 1930s saw the appearance of a strong immigrant community that was augmented after 1945 by the arrival of war refugee families. A significant degree of educational and economic advancement, a high rate of intermarriage, and the dispersal of this relatively small community have moved the Estonians well into the mainstream of American life. In addition, research has shown a considerable degree of ethnic consciousness among the contemporary Estonian Americans that will help hold the community together.


Education has played an important role in shaping the Estonian American community and in moving these immigrants into mainstream American life. Because Estonia in the nineteenth century was more advanced in literacy than many other parts of the Russian Empire, many of the early immigrants were literate. Likewise, a significant number of the political refugees who fled Estonia after the abortive 1905 Revolution were educated, and the Socialist ferment within the community produced journals, newspapers, and reading rooms. However, the emphasis on education was nowhere more apparent than in the refugees who arrived in the United States after 1945. Many of them were members of the educational and political elite of Estonia, and in the United States they pushed for their children to get a good education. Studies of the second generation of these Estonian Americans have shown that a large majority have at least some college education, a modest majority have completed college, and a sizable number have graduate degrees. Also among this last group of immigrants were a number of Estonian intellectuals and academics who took positions in the American educational system. Estonian Americans have tended to specialize in science and technology, moving into fields such as engineering and architecture.

The Estonian American community has established a number of institutions to promote advancement in scholarship and education. These include Estonian academic fraternities and sororities, as well as an Estonian Students Association in the United States that promotes students' knowledge of Estonian language and culture and Estonian study abroad (especially in Finland). Learned societies, such as the Estonian Educational Society and the Estonian Learned Society in America, sponsor publications and conferences. A number of other specialized educational groups have a broader membership that extends throughout North America and Europe.

Estonian schools, located in major centers of the Estonian American community, are designed to supplement the education of Estonian youth by teaching them Estonian language, geography, history, and culture. These schools are interlinked in a regional and national network.


Since the advent of the Estonian American community, women have traditionally worked outside the home, pursuing education and careers. In 1932 an anonymous Estonian American writer commenting in his journal Meie Tee (quoted in The Estonians in America, 1627-1975: A Chronology and Factbook, p. 83) remarked about his community: "Estonian women here have always worked, even though the husband might have a well-paying job. Perhaps this is ... an established tradition." A 1968 survey of young Estonian American women showed that only 14 percent had ended their education at the high school level, whereas 61 percent were college graduates. The advanced level of women's education and work outside the home partly explains the swift rise in socioeconomic status of the Estonian American community. Estonian American women have also formed numerous local, national, and international women's organizations centered on educational, cultural, and social concerns and have banded with other Baltic-American women's groups to achieve common goals.


In Estonia the dominant form of Christianity is Lutheranism, with smaller numbers of Baptist and Orthodox adherents. In Estonian American communities Lutheranism continues to be the dominant religious force. Headquartered in Stockholm, the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church is easily the largest organized religious group within the Estonian American community, with 38 congregations and 12,032 members across North America. The Estonian American Baptists came to the United States before World War I to escape persecution in Estonia and have maintained a number of congregations. The Baptist congregation in New York City, one of the first congregations formed, was an important early institution within the immigrant community. Estonian Orthodox parishes are active in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and New York City. There are also several Estonian Pentecostal congregations.

This is not to say, however, that religious belief and affiliation have been universally important for Estonian immigrants in America; indeed, many Estonians were ambivalent or even hostile toward religious belief, especially early in this century. There are a number of reasons for these negative feelings, which spring from religious faith and practice in Estonia. The Lutheran Church in Estonia had traditionally been dominated by the Baltic-Germans, who monopolized many aspects of Estonian national life; not until 1860 did ethnic Estonians serve as Lutheran pastors. Thus, to many nineteenth-century Estonians Lutheranism represented a "foreign" presence. Another factor in the ambivalence of early Estonian immigrants toward religion was their adherence to socialist and communist ideologies that opposed organized religion. These dynamics proved to be very difficult for early Estonian American pastors to overcome, as they clashed with anticlerical and socialist immigrant groups.

The first religious leader in the Estonian American community was the Reverend Hans Rebane, who arrived in New York in 1896. Rebane had been invited by the American denomination, the German Missouri Lutheran Synod, to establish a mission for Estonian and Latvian Lutheran immigrants. Rebane established a small congregation in New York City and visited other Estonian settlements in the East and Midwest. Rebane also established a newspaper, Eesti Amerika Postimees (Estonian American Courier ), the first Estonian publication in the United States. Rebane used this newspaper to push his religious views and feuded with Estonian socialist groups until his death in 1911. Though the congregation in New York survived, and the Missouri Synod continued mission work among Estonian immigrants, this work was not particularly successful. During the period before World War II only two other Estonian American congregations took hold: a Baptist congregation formed in 1919, and a Pentecostal congregation formed in 1928, both in New York City.

After 1945 the influx of Estonian war refugees resulted in the construction of a number new Lutheran congregations, all linked with the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELC). Established in 1954, the EELC has Lutheran congregations in most major Estonian settlements in North America. The other religious force to appear after 1945 was Estonian Orthodox Christianity, establishing several regional parishes. Orthodoxy took root in Estonia during the nineteenth century, winning Estonian converts who were discontent with German-dominated Lutheranism and Russian inducements. The first Estonian Orthodox parish was formed in New York City in 1949.

Especially since 1945 religion has come to play an important role in the life of the Estonian American community and has helped maintain a sense of group identity and cultural cohesion.

Employment and Economic Traditions

The large majority of early immigrants settled in cities on the East and West Coasts, seeking jobs in labor and industry. Many Estonian men worked in the construction trades, and some rose to the level of independent contractors. Many women worked as domestics or in small retail or industrial operations. In the 1920s and 1930s numbers of Estonians were employed as building attendants and superintendents in apartments and office buildings, especially in New York. Other Estonians started small businesses, some of which were fairly successful.

An early conflict within the Estonian American community was over socialism and communism. Many of the refugees from the failed 1905 Revolution were socialists who were influential in establishing a strong socialist-oriented urban workers' movement among the Estonian Americans. Workers' societies were formed in centers of Estonian settlement, and in 1908 a central committee was organized to coordinate their activities. These organizations were often the only collective Estonian bodies in the community and thus came to be influential. However, the leadership of these organizations proved to be more radical than the American socialists and the majority of Estonian American workers. Between 1917 and 1920 the Estonian workers' movement was split over the issue of whether to support the Soviet military takeover of the newly independent Republic of Estonia. Many of the movement's leaders adopted a communist platform that supported inclusion of Estonia within the Soviet Union, whereas the majority of the rank and file opposed the move. The split shattered the effectiveness of the immigrant institutions and the Estonian American worker's movement as a whole. The communists were eventually absorbed into the American Communist Party, losing any particular ethnic identity.

After 1945 the employment and economic status of the community shifted in response to the new wave of political refugees, many of whom were well-educated professionals. A strong emphasis on education, professionalism, and the two-income family brought prosperity and socioeconomic mobility to the Estonian American community, which became predominantly middle class. Education, engineering and applied technology, medicine, science, and music and the arts were the leading professions. In 1962 a study of young Estonian American professionals found that 43 percent worked in the fields of engineering and technology; 18 percent in the sciences; 16 percent in the humanities and social sciences, respectively; and seven percent in medicine. Some Estonians have gone into business, often starting small- to medium-sized businesses within the Estonian American community.

Politics and Government

Political activity within the Estonian American community has been responsive to events within Estonia itself. Fluctuations in Estonia's status as an independent country have had a significant impact on this activity.

Because of Estonia's dependent status in the nineteenth century, many Estonian immigrants had not formed a clear consciousness of their national identity. But the rise of Estonian nationalism, coupled with the socialist struggle against the tsarist government, prompted the Estonian American community toward greater involvement in the affairs of the homeland. As political refugees began streaming into the country after the 1905 Revolution, the leadership of the immigrant community and many of its institutions passed into socialist hands. The communist revolution and the struggle to free Estonia (1917-1920) split the Estonian American community between those who supported a free Estonia and those who supported its inclusion into the Soviet Union. The Estonian nationalists prevailed because of a growing sense of national pride and because of the arrival (after 1920) of many veterans of the Estonian struggle for independence. In the wider sphere of American politics, the immigrant community was not particularly active unless the Republic of Estonia's affairs were directly involved. The number of immigrants seeking citizenship during this period was lower than for other Baltic nationalities.

The Soviet invasion of Estonia in 1940, along with the arrival of the war refugees after 1945, dramatically changed the face of the Estonian American community and its political efforts. The major concern now was Estonian independence from Soviet control. Many Estonian and Baltic-American groups formed to support their Estonian homeland in achieving this goal. Their initial activities centered on lobbying both the U.S. government and the United Nations to prevent the legal recognition of the Soviet conquest of Estonia. Because of their efforts (in concert with Latvian and Lithuanian Americans), the U.S. government never formally recognized the annexation of the three Baltic countries by the Soviet Union in 1940 and again in 1944 until 1991 when these countries regained their independence. Consequently, in the post World War II years, all three Baltic nations maintained consulates in the United States. Estonian Americans, as well as other Eastern European immigrant groups, were particularly outraged by the 1945 U.S.-Soviet agreement at Yalta, which they viewed as a sellout of the nations under communist domination.

After 1945 most Estonian Americans supported the Republican Party, faulting the Democrats for the Yalta agreement and viewing the Republicans as more sympathetic to their concerns. This trend of support for the Republican Party has continued. In 1970 the Estonian American National Republic Committee was formed, with a network of Estonian American Republican clubs established in geographic centers of the immigrant community. Socialist influence in the community has diminished.


Estonian American involvement in organized labor grew with the rise of the workers' movement in the early twentieth century. Support for this movement saw the rise many local workers' and socialist organizations and a number of newspapers and periodicals. Many of the activities of the workers' movement went beyond economic and union concerns to include social and cultural activities as well as political mobilization. However, the socialist leaders of the movement tended to be more radical than either the rank and file or the American labor movement, and this was the cause of much friction. With the drift toward communism and agitation over Estonian independence, the worker's movement became divided and lost much of its vitality.


Estonian Americans have served in the U.S. armed forces in every significant military conflict in the twentieth century. There was a small Estonian American presence during the two World Wars, while a larger group fought in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. In 1951 an Estonian American, Kalju Suitsev, was awarded a Silver Star and Purple Heart for bravery in Korea. In Vietnam many Estonian youth participated, including a number who were killed or decorated for bravery. Given the fervent patriotic and anti-communist stance of the Estonian American community during this period, support for military service was strong.


The intense support given to the Republic of Estonia during the 1920s and 1930s, and the agitation for a free Estonia after 1940, galvanized the immigrant community and created a course of common action. The drive toward nationalism has not always won universal support, however, the most notable example being the Estonian American communists who favored Soviet rule over Estonia. It remains to be seen how Estonian independence, achieved in 1991, will shape the activities of the Estonian American community.

Individual and Group Contributions

Although small in number, Estonian Americans have played a significant part in their communities and in the United States. Their most striking accomplishments have been in the fields of education, engineering and technology, architecture and applied arts, and music.


The most prominent of all Estonian Americans is probably the architect Anton Hanson, who was born in Estonia in 1879 and immigrated to the United States in 1906. Hanson was one of the designing architects of the Seattle World's Fair, for which he was awarded the grand prize.


Herrman Eduard von Holst (1841-1904) studied in Estonia and received his doctorate from the University of Heidelberg in Germany. He became the first chair of the history department at the University of Chicago and wrote a number of important works on American and European history. He also held academic positions in Germany and France. Theodore Alexis Wiel was born in Estonia in 1893 but attended college in America. After being decorated for service in France in World War I, Wiel earned a doctorate in international relations and taught at American International College, where he also served as dean. Ragnar Nurske (1907-1959) studied in Estonia and England before coming to the United States, where he taught Economics at Columbia University. Nurske authored a number of works on international economics and also served on the League of Nations prior to World War II. Ants Oras was an English professor at the University of Tartu, Estonia. He came to America via England after World War II and taught at the University of Florida. Arthur Vööbus (1909-1990) obtained his doctorate in Estonia in 1943 and came to the United States after the war. A biblical scholar and expert on early Syrian Christianity, Vööbus taught at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago.


Miliza Korjus was born in Estonia to Estonian and Polish parents. A soprano, Korjus performed the leading role in the film The Great Waltz (1938), a biography of the waltz king, Johann Strauss. Korjus later settled in California to continue her singing career. Ivan (John) Triesault, born in Estonia, was a film actor who made over 25 films, from Mission to Moscow (1942) to Von Ryan's Express (1965). He specialized in playing character roles, including German military officers.


William Leiserson (1883-1957), born in Estonia, received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1911. A specialist in labor affairs, he was employed by the U.S. Department of Labor and was appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt to the Labor Arbitration Commission in 1939.


Carl Sundbach, born in Estonia in 1888, invented a freezer that greatly reduced the time required to bulk freeze fish. William Zimdin (1881-1951) was an international businessman and millionaire. Zimdin began his career in the United States in 1920 by arranging transactions between the United States and the Soviet Union; he eventually settled in California. Otto Lellep, born in Estonia in 1884, was a metallurgical engineer who came to the United States in 1917. Working in the United States and Germany, he developed a cement baking oven and made advancements in the processing of steel, iron ore, and nickel. Lellep went into business manufacturing his ovens in the United States after World War II. John Kusik, born in Estonia in 1898, rose to become director and senior vice president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and served on a number of other corporate boards.


Edmund Valtman (1914- ) came to the United States in 1949. A political cartoonist with the Hartford Times, Valtman received the Pulitzer Prize for his drawings in 1961.


Ludvig Juht (1894-1957), an Estonian-born musician, specialized in the contrabass. Juht had an international career in Estonia, Finland, and Germany until he was brought to America in 1934 by Serge Koussevitzky to be principle contrabass with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In addition, Juht taught at both the New England Conservatory of Music and Boston University, and worked as a composer. Evi Liivak was born in Estonia in 1925 and studied the violin. In 1951 she joined her American husband in the United States and has enjoyed an international career.


Elmar Leppik, a biologist educated in Estonia and Europe, came to America in 1950. He taught at a number of American universities and then worked as a research scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Maryland. Igor Taum, born in Estonia in 1922, came to the United States in 1945 and has served as a research physician at Rockefeller University, New York City, where he specializes in the study of viruses. Richard Härm, born in 1909, was educated in Estonia and Germany prior to coming to the United States after World War II. He taught mathematics at Princeton University. Rein Kilkson (1927- ) was born in Estonia, and received his doctorate at Yale University in 1949. A physicist, he did research in the areas of biophysics and virology and taught at the University of Arizona. Lauri Vaska (1925- ), a chemist, discovered a new chemical compound, which was eventually named the "Vaska compound." Vaska taught at Clarkson College of Technology, Potsdam, New York. Harald Oliver, Jyri Kork, and Rein Ise have participated as scientists in the U.S. space program on the Apollo moon project and the Skylab space station.


Voldemar Rannus (1880-1944) came to the United States in 1905. A sculptor, Rannus studied at the National Academy of Design in New York, and later in Europe. He molded a bas-relief of Albert Beach (the designer of the New York City subway) for the subway station near the New York City Hall. Andrew Winter (1893-1958) painted realistic winter scenes and seascapes. Born in Estonia, he came to the United States and studied here, eventually settling in Maine.



Journal of Baltic Studies.

Published by the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies (AABS), this quarterly provides a forum for scholarly discussion on topics regarding the Baltic Republics and their peoples.

Contact: William Urban or Roger Noel, Editors.

Address: 111 Knob Hill Road, Hacketstown, New Jersey 07844.

Meie Tee ( Our Path ).

Estonian American monthly journal, established in 1931, with general information about the American and worldwide Estonian community. Published by the World Association of Estonians.

Address: 243 East 34th Street, New York, New York 10016.

Telephone: (212) 684-9281.

Vaba Eesti S õ na ( Free Estonian Word ).

Estonian American weekly newspaper, established in 1949. Known for its staunch anti-communist and nationalist views.

Contact: Mati Koiva, President.

Address: Nordic Press, Inc., 243 East 34th Street, New York, New York 10016.

Telephone: (212) 686-3356.

Fax: (212) 686-3356.

E-mail: [email protected]

Väliseestlase Kalendar ( Calendar for Estonians Abroad ).

Annual publication for the immigrant community, established in 1953.

Address: The Nordic Press, P.O. Box 123, New York, New York 10156.

Telephone: (212) 686-3356.

Yearbook of the Estonian Learned Society in America.

Published by the Estonian Learned Society in America to advance and disseminate scholarly knowledge for and about Estonia and Estonians.

Address: 243 East 34th Street, New York, New York 10016.

Organizations and Associations

Estonian American National Council (EANC).

Founded in 1952, this umbrella organization represents all Estonian Americans and major Estonian American organizations. Coordinates the efforts of the member groups; supports political, cultural, and social activities; provides grants for study; and maintains a library and archives at its headquarters in New York City.

Contact: John J. Tiivel, Secretary General.

Address: 243 East 34th Street, New York, New York 10016.

Telephone: (212) 685-0776.

Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELC).

Founded in 1954. Ecclesiastical structure for all Estonian Lutherans outside of Estonia, headquartered in Sweden. Promotes religious education and outreach in the immigrant communities, conducts religious services, and maintains congregations. The North American branch of the EELC consists of 38 congregations in the United States and Canada.

Contact: Rev. Udo Petersoo, Archbishop for North America.

Address: 383 Jarvis Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5B 2C7.

Telephone: (416) 925-5465.

Estonian Heritage Society (EHS).

Promotes and seeks to preserve Estonian cultural heritage.

Contact: Mart Aru, Chair.

Address: P.O. Box 3141, 200090 Tallinn, Estonia.

Telephone: (142) 449216.

Estonian Learned Society in America.

Founded in 1950, this scholarly organization represents Estonian Americans with graduate degrees; it seeks to encourage Estonian studies, especially in English and supports translation of Estonian literary works. Publishes a yearbook every three to four years.

Contact: Dr. Tönu Parming, Secretary.

Address: 243 East 34th Street, Estonian House, New York, New York 10016.

Estonian Relief Committee, Inc.

Founded in 1941, this committee assists Estonians with settlement and employment in the United States. It also supports Estonian American activities and groups, especially Estonian American scouting programs.

Contact: Alfred Anderson, Secretary-General.

Address: 243 East 34th Street, New York, New York 10016.

Telephone: (212) 685-7467.

Federated Estonian Women's Clubs.

Founded in 1966, this club coordinates and encourages ties between Estonian women's organizations throughout the world. It also sponsors scholarship and cultural activities, such as folk art, language training, Estonian handicrafts, and camping.

Contact: Juta Kurman, President.

Address: 243 East 34th Street, New York, New York 10016.

United Baltic Appeal (BATUN).

Serves as an information center dealing with events and circumstances pertinent to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Contact: Baiba J. Rudzifis-Pinnis, President.

Address: 115 West 183rd Street, Bronx, New York 10453.

Telephone: (718) 367-8802.

Museums and Research Centers

Estonian Archives in the United States.

The main archives for documents on the immigrant settlements and their development. Located in the Estonian American community of Lakewood, New Jersey, this institution is particularly valuable to the study of Estonian Americans.

Address: 607 East Seventh Street, Lakewood, New Jersey 08701.

Estonian Educational Society (EHS).

Maintains school of Estonian language and history and library of 3,000 volumes in Estonian.

Contact: Rudolf Hamar, Manager.

Address: Estonian House, 243 East 34th Street, New York, New York 10016.

Telephone: (212) 684-0336.

Estonian Society of San Francisco.

A cultural, educational, and social foundation for Estonian Americans on the West Coast. It sponsors ethnic scouting, dancing, and scholarship and maintains a library and reading room.

Contact: August Kollom, President.

Address: 537 Brannan Street, San Francisco, California 94107.

Telephone: (415) 797-7892.

Immigration History Research Center.

Located at the University of Minnesota, this is a valuable archival resource for many of the immigrant groups from Eastern and Southern Europe, including the Estonians. In addition to newspapers and serials, the center also has a collection of books and monographs, along with the records of Estonian American groups in Minnesota and Chicago.

Contact: Dr. Rudolph Vecoli, Director.

Address: 826 Berry Street, St. Paul, Minnesota 55114.

Telephone: (612) 627-4208.

Office of the Estonian Consulate General.

Representing the Republic of Estonia in the United States, it is a valuable resource for general information on Estonia and the Estonian American community.

Address: 9 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, New York 10020.

Sources for Additional Study

Balys, J., and Uno Teemant. "Estonian Bibliographies: A Selected List," Lituanus: The Lithuanian Quarterly, 19, No. 3, 1973; 54-72.

The Estonians in America, 1627-1975: A Chronology and Factbook, edited by Jaan Pennar, et al. Ethnic Chronology Series, No. 17. Dobbs Ferry, New York: Oceana Publications, Inc., 1975.

Parming, Marju, and Tönu Parming. A Bibliography of English-Language Sources on Estonia. New York: Estonian Learned Society in America, 1974.

Raun, Toivo. Estonia and Estonians (Studies in Nationalities of the U.S.S.R.). Stanford, California: Hoover Institution Press, 1987.

Tannberg, Kersti, and Tönu Parming. Aspects of Cultural Life: Sources for the Study of Estonians in America. New York: Estonian Learned Society in America, 1979.

Walko, M. Ann. Rejecting the Second Generation Hypothesis: Maintaining Estonian Ethnicity in Lakewood, New Jersey. New York: AMS Press, 1989.